Five Beliefs that Inhibit Good Design

Posted on Harvard Business Review: October 28, 2010 9:57 AM

There are plentiful examples today of companies using design to create value for consumers and shareholders. Despite the growing interest in design across industries, there are also persistent misconceptions that keep many business leaders from realizing its potential in their organizations. Here are the most common ones:

1. Quality is more important than design in my business. Quality is important in every business and always will be. However, quality is the price of entry in many industries and it's rarely enough to win market share and loyal consumers.

There's a persistent belief in a trade-off between style and substance. In reality, design is a way of conveying quality. Data suggest that companies gain the luxury to focus on design when they have mastered quality, distribution, and understand their markets well enough to create a relevant offering. Google, Coca Cola, HP, Procter & Gamble—are just a few examples of firms that are high design and high performance.

What's true in the lives of individuals applies to companies as well—when you're exhausted, overwhelmed or confused about what to do next, you never look your best. Consumers look at a dirty store, picked-over merchandise and bad service and come to the same conclusions. Good design is like putting on a suit for an interview—it shows the other person that you care about the relationship.

2. It is more important for me to offer a great price than a great design. Some great designs and brands do cost more, but there is no absolute correlation between price and design. Great design exists at all price points. Some of the best-known examples are companies such as Target, IKEA and LEGO that offer goods in a budget-conscious segment. The pattern continues with the Top 20 global brands, which include luxury retailers but also accessible goods and services like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Google and Gillette.

More importantly, some of the most innovative designs today were created with affordability and scarcity in mind. The Tata Nano, the award-winning portable ECG machine from GE and One Laptop per Child were just a few notable efforts that challenged assumptions about price-performance relationships and generated design buzz. The push for sustainability across industries is likely to amplify this trend.

3. I would like to have a great design, but I have to launch on time. Design by definition must include execution. Focusing on design forces an organization to test ideas, synthesize feedback, and generate new concepts at a rapid pace. Historically, designers were brought in at the end of the launch process—and creating concepts under intense pressure is still the norm.

Look at the many of the companies that are strongly associated with design today. Apple, P&G, Target, Amazon, LEGO and others expand their portfolios and launch products more frequently than their peers. Design efforts don't slow down product launches. Indecision does. A widely shared set of decision criteria around design can make the process more efficient.

4. Design and aesthetics are too subjective—I need data to make decisions. Although great design speaks to a consumer's needs and emotions, there is no single aesthetic that companies must drive toward. Consistency between the brand values and the physical design is what creates a superior consumer experience. BMW, Honda and Hyundai have deep consumer loyalty with very different looks and features. Moreover, design priorities are based in actual data. Consumer testing and feedback can be achieved at low cost today with the internet and social media.

5. I will create the product or service; I trust the advertising experts to tell the story. The worlds of brand, advertising and design are rapidly converging. Well-crafted marketing and branding can boost the impact of a great design, but unless the message is reinforced by real-world experience, the effect is usually temporary.

In the best cases, the design itself can become the advertisement. Some familiar success stories—Dyson, FlipCam, the iPod, Method—illustrate this point beautifully. These designs fuel demand and propel brand loyalty. It's no accident that great companies often have great ad campaigns and use social media effectively—they are leveraging the same deep understanding of the consumer.

Business leaders don't need to go to design school to bring great design into their companies. They need to remember bring their own core skills—listening to consumers, asking questions, and openness to new ideas—into the design process. Design doesn't work in a vacuum—it's the alignment with the right business model and service that creates a compelling consumer experience. Getting to great design requires looking at consumers, not competing products, more thoughtfully.